Completing a Ph.D. project successfully depends on a number of factors, such as working on an interesting and well-posed problem and together with skilled people from whom you can learn the trait of becoming and being a researcher. It also, however, depends on you and your ability to develop the right habits during the project.
In this post, I share the essential habits that I formed and developed during my own Ph.D. project – several of which I’m still relying on and holding on to in my post-Ph.D. career.
The points I’ll cover are the following:
- Write a work journal every day
- Organize literature in a database
- Set up a regular schedule for supervisor meetings
- Deal with procrastination
- Develop and pursue your own ideas
- Go home – and have fun
Write a work journal every day
Make it a habit to every day write a bit about what you have done, what you have thought about and read, what problems and questions you have encountered – and what to do next.
When you write these things down, it will be easier to leave work at the end of the day – and easier to continue from where you left the next day.
Additionally, writing your work down is a way to remind you of the progress you have made. Especially when being in the middle of solving a problem, it can be easy to feel like you have spent a lot of time and come nowhere, and the writing will be a concrete proof of your progress.
Finally, a work journal can be referred back to later on, when you may have forgotten a solution to a problem or the arguments for why you chose to go in one and not the other direction in your project.
See also: The Art of Writing a (Ph.D.) Work Log
Organize literature in a database
You are going to read a lot of papers, textbooks and other documents during your Ph.D., so make sure to organize all the reading in a database. This will make it easier to find that particular reference you read last month or last year when you need it, and it will also make writing literature reviews in your own papers and conference abstracts – and ultimately in your Ph.D. thesis – smoother.
Set up a regular schedule for supervisor meetings
Your Ph.D. supervisor is a key person during your Ph.D. project, and you should have dedicated sessions with her/him/them on a regular basis during the entire project. Talk to your supervisor and define a regular schedule for your meetings, for example once every two weeks.
Prepare well for the meetings, and make supervisor meetings the deadlines you otherwise do not have. Present and talk to your supervisor about what you have worked on, and in particular what problems you may have encountered, and where you feel stuck.
Finally, formulate together concrete next steps for you to take, and follow up on these at the next supervisor meeting.
Deal with procrastination
In a Ph.D. project, you are going to work a lot on your own and with none or few deadlines, and it may not be clear what the expected outcome is. These are all reasons why it is easy to spend time procrastinating, when you should be working on your research.
Thus, try to deal with procrastination from the beginning of your Ph.D. project. Dealing with procrastination is not the same as always avoiding it. In a first time, simply acknowledge that you may have a tendency to procrastinate, and decide if and when it might be a problem.
When procrastination should be avoided, for example close to a submission deadline, do not let e-mail and your smartphone disturb you, but turn them off or put them away. Also, install an app in your internet browser to block out social media and news sites that you tend to go to and waste time on.
Additionally, make your own deadlines. Supervisor meetings are one example of deadlines, while submitting a paper for a conference, with a specific submission date, can be another deadline. When you have agreed with yourself and your supervisor to have something ready for a certain date, it is easier to avoid wasting time on procrastination.
Develop and pursue your own ideas
In the beginning of a Ph.D. project, you follow closely the input and guidelines you get from your Ph.D. supervisor and work accordingly, but along the way you should start working more independently.
A Ph.D. project is in essence an education to become a researcher, and an important part of this education is to learn to convert the knowledge you have and the input you get (from other research, papers, conferences, colleagues, your supervisor, etc.) into your own hypotheses and ideas.
When you reach this point , do not hesitate to test your own ideas – and to discuss your investigations and findings with your supervisor, who will be happy to know that you have started developing your own ideas. Even if it is your idea, it can likely benefit from your supervisor’s trained eye and experience, which may turn it into an even better research question or project.
Go home – and have fun
Work hard and in a dedicated manner, but also go home at the end of the day, and go out to have fun regularly. Your brain needs a break every day, and you will be more productive during the day if you allow yourself to be off at night.
This is not to say that whenever you feel stuck, or cannot solve a particular problem, you should go home and take a break. Sometimes, you need to stay that extra hour to crack the problem at hand. But when you have been over the problem from several different angles and do not feel like it’s opening up, it may be the right time to take a break, get some fresh air and do something else.
Getting up and out of the office is sometimes all it takes to get the right perspective on the problem to solve it. More than once during my own Ph.D., did I experience exactly this, and it felt like a double victory – having a break and solving the problem.